Irrigation system a tough sell to private golf club’s members, but ‘experts’ help push it through
By Mike Jiggens
WHEN Chad Mark, superintendent at the Kirtland Country Club in Ohio, was first hired 14 years ago, he inherited a “new” irrigation system which members expected would last for years.
Unfortunately, the system installed in 1997 had some significant shortcomings, and it was apparent an upgrade was badly needed, he told a roomful of superintendents in December who attended the 27th annual professional turfgrass seminar in Waterloo, Ont., sponsored by Ontario Seed Company and Nutrite.
“When I told the powers that be that midway through that first summer that the irrigation system really wasn’t very good, and perhaps we should be thinking about replacing it, they laughed at me. They didn’t think it was something they had to do for a very long time.”
Mark said he figured he would have a fight on his hands for the next several years in order to gain approval for an upgraded system.
The 86-year-old Kirtland Country Club is ranked seventh best in the state of Ohio and is usually grouped among the top 100 courses in the United States. In 2010, it played host to the Ohio amateur championship.
After 14 years of bemoaning his irrigation system’s poor performance, Mark will finally welcome this year a brand new system. But, he added, it took a highly-detailed report from an irrigation auditor to sell the idea to Kirtland’s membership.
“The new system that we’re going to have in place is going to essentially have a three-row fairway system with 100 per cent rough coverage.”
The problem with the existing system, he said, was that, from the start, it hadn’t been properly spaced out, “and they didn’t put a centre line down the centre.”
Striving for a new system began in earnest in 2009, but Mark said he continually heard from his membership that the existing system was still “new” and didn’t need replacement. He said he continues to hear the same sentiment, even though approval has officially been given for an upgrade.
“We treated our irrigation system master plan just like we treated the golf course component master plan. We hired an expert.”
The expert was an auditor who conducted an audit of the existing system and designed a more up-to-date operation which addressed both Mark’s wants and needs in a system that would better serve the golf club’s requirements. The auditor also assumed the task of presenting the information to the club’s membership. Mark said he figured putting an expert in that role would more effectively sell the idea to the club than if he as superintendent took on the task.
Part and parcel of the older system’s shortcomings was an inefficient pump station which was not strategically located.
Kirtland has been drawing its water from a river which runs through the property. Although it presents a cost savings opportunity for the club, Mark said the club has also been conscientious about relying entirely on the river as its sole water resource.
He added there has always been a concern that the club might one day lose the opportunity to draw water from the river, or that an environmental setback such as an oil spill could occur, contaminating the water and rendering it unuseable.
“I wanted to get away from depending solely on that river as our irrigation source.”
Due to an 85-foot elevation change between the upper and lower parts of the golf course, a booster system was tied into the older pump station located at the lower level to move water uphill. But it lost 60 pounds of pressure moving upwards. Although 40 of it was boosted back, the heads at the upper nine holes failed to operate at the recommended psi (pounds per square inch).
Mark said there were actually two problems: the spacings were incorrect and they weren’t running at the right pressure.
A new pump station was installed in 2013 at the upper part of the golf course, and the club’s irrigation pond has been made bigger and deeper. The river continues to be used to recharge the water reservoir at the top nine, but, in the event the club should lose its water-drawing privileges from that source, a city line has been incorporated as an additional source for recharging the reservoir.
The pond allows for the retention of two weeks of water.
The old pump station was rated at 121 psi and 780 gallons per minute while the new station is 110 psi and 2,300 gallons per minute, “which doesn’t do us a ton of good right now because we don’t have the heads where we want them.”
Mark said that once the new irrigation system is installed this year, the heads will be laid in and spaced properly and the club’s watering requirements will be where they should be. Greater efficiency of the entire system is the objective from the new head layout.
“Right now we don’t just hand water to syringe, we don’t just hand water to touch up localized dry spots…we hand water to prep.”
The booster station will no longer be needed, and the club now has the ability to treat water. Water drawn from the river tended to be high in salt content due to snow melt.
The old pump station had been located on a flood plain which, during a flood event, restricted access to the station by anything but a golf cart. The new station is located off the main road which can now be accessed by trucks.
Mark said the current irrigation system is so antiquated that it rarely runs on the tees. Residential sprinklers are generally used instead. He said it may sound absurd, but added it is the only way they feel water can be put where it needs to go.
What finally sold the new irrigation system, he said, was the role it would play in the want for new forward tees by the club’s female members. Mark said he was through selling the idea of a new irrigation system, but opted to sell it instead as a long-range improvement plan. New forward tees cannot be built without proper irrigation, he explained to his membership, citing the need for the right infrastructure to be in place.
Prior to realizing the need for a new irrigation system, the Kirtland Country Club developed a master plan in 2004-2005 which served as a blueprint for what the club wished to do over the next 20 years.
“It was going to be a long-term blueprint for us to work off of.”
In 2007, a restoration project got underway, marking the most significant undertaking the club had pursued in its history. The project included bunkers, greens expansions, back tees and infrastructure items.
The second phase of Kirtland’s long-range plan begins this year. In addition to the new irrigation system, fairways will be expanded, two new greens will be built, and greens will be expanded with runoff areas.
Mark said Kirtland has hired several consultants to help sell the various course improvements to the membership. He said that he can adequately share with golfers the reasons for embarking upon various improvements, but admitted it sounds better if the information comes from a representative of the USGA green section.
“The members want to hear it from an expert.”
Historic aerial photographs were among the data collected to help push the restoration process forward. Images from the early half of the 20th century clearly depicted how much the golf course had changed over the decades from its architect’s original vision.
Members and experts assembled in the same room to discuss what had happened with the golf course over the years and what needed to be done to restore its original look. The various challenges confronting the project were discussed in detail such as the need to be able to bring large and heavy equipment onto the course from the main road because bridges on the property were unable to accommodate their bulk.
The topography of the golf course—especially the 85-foot elevation change—was considered in the planning stages so as not to leave any surprises for members with cost overruns and other unanticipated setbacks.
Mark said the success of what has happened so far is largely due to strong communications with his members.
In 2007, 30,000 square feet of greens were restored. The original greens were much broader and “boxier,” but had become more rounded over the years which Mark suspected was due to the advent of triplex mowing. Their original character was lost as a result.
Members wanted bigger greens and bought into the idea, but were less than enthused with the $120,000 expense of having to consequently move the irrigation that had only been installed 10 years earlier.
Mark said the greens were returned to the look obtained from the older aerial photographs, and members have since come to appreciate the restored putting surfaces.
Bunker washouts used to account for nearly one-third of the club’s labour costs. Adopting the Better Billy Bunker™ method, the club has realized significantly fewer washouts, better drainage and not nearly as much contamination of the sand.
A number of trees have been removed which occasionally stirs up controversy among the membership. Most years include a simple tree plan, but exact numbers aren’t mentioned.
Improving greens drainage has been one of Kirtland’s biggest success stories, Mark said. Previously, they would fare well when controlling water, but during wet summers the greens wouldn’t perform as hoped. The project was done over a three-year period.
“It was one of those things that was hard to sell, but it was a blessing in disguise.”
Only the three worst greens were done initially to see how they would respond to drainage. During the club’s invitational tournament that year, three inches of rain had fallen before 1 p.m. During a weather delay about 20 minutes after the rain had stopped, a group of members were shown the three greens that had been done to compare them with the others. They were so impressed by how well they had drained that they sold their fellow members to continue with the remaining greens.
In 2013, Mark was named TurfNet superintendent of the year.